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It’s time for gospel music to reinvent itself again

Jacob Lusk, right, and Kirk Franklin perform at the American Idol Finale in 2011. (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

The year was 1997, and the bass line of gospel artist Kirk Franklin’s new single was a bit too familiar. “For those of you who think that gospel music has gone too far,” the diminutive musician intoned over an interpolation of funk legend George Clinton’s “One Nation Under a Groove,” “You think that gospel music has gone too far . . . well, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” The admonition for an older, stodgier generation of gospel enthusiasts to loosen up and brace themselves for another era of Christian music — one that would continue an old trend of borrowing influence from R&B, pop, and rap — proved prescient. Franklin’s P-Funk-inspired “Stomp” indeed revolutionized both the purpose and the reach of gospel music. “God’s Property,” the album on which the song appeared, went triple platinum and became the first gospel album to top the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.

With its line-dance-friendly groove and vocals and a video cameo from ’80s rap icon Cheryl “Salt” James of Salt-N-Pepa fame, “Stomp” marked the beginning of urban contemporary gospel’s dominance of the broader gospel genre, where more traditional solo and choir acts such as Andraé Crouch, Vanessa Bell Armstrong and the Georgia and Mississippi Mass Choirs once ruled the charts. What Franklin called “radicalism” simply meant crossover appeal. A catchphrase popularized during the late-’90s rise of urban contemporary gospel was that crossing over to secular music charts meant taking “the Cross over to broader audiences.”

This sentiment, rooted in the mutually exclusive conceit that Christians should only be listening to gospel music while secular artists were under-exposed to it, was captured in a 1995 issue of Jet magazine, which included interviews with gospel artists such as Hezekiah Walker and Tramaine Hawkins. It’s worth noting that the back pages of that issue included Kirk Franklin’s 1993 album, “Kirk Franklin and the Family,” on its top 20 albums list, alongside Michael Jackson, The Notorious B.I.G. and Mary J. Blige.

In the article, traditional gospel icon Pastor Shirley Caesar conceded, “I realize everyone is not going to listen to just traditional gospel music. We are on the verge of losing our young people and need to do whatever it takes to win them back.” Maintaining or regaining youthful interest in gospel music has been a preoccupation of the genre for many years, and the success of more pop-friendly acts such as Mary Mary, whose singles “Shackles (Praise You)” and “God in Me” spent time on Billboard’s Top 100 list, and Yolanda Adams, whose “Open My Heart” became a top 10 Hot R&B/Hip-Hop song, seemed to confirm that music that eschewed the stuffiness of organs and choir robes was the way to go.

But interest in urban contemporary gospel seems to have waned in the 20 years since. Pastor Caesar’s concern that everyone wouldn’t just listen to traditional gospel didn’t account for the large-scale cultural shift away from church’s resistance to secular music-listening. When the 30th annual Stellar Awards aired on TV One last weekend, the ceremony’s biggest draw was a surprise appearance by Beyoncé, who sang backup alongside Kelly Rowland for their Destiny’s Child bandmate, Michelle Williams, for her gospel hit “Say Yes.” The ceremony, billed as “Gospel Music’s Biggest Night,” had to rely on pop music’s biggest icon to market itself.

Even then, the Stellar telecast attracted 1.1 million viewers, a count based on numbers combined over three airings of the awards on Sunday night. Network competitor BET aired its fifth annual Black Girls Rock on the same night. It earned 1.2 million viewers during a single airing.

Perhaps merely for the sake of nostalgia, I tried to watch the Stellar Awards’ first airing at 6 p.m. But it became clear after just a few minutes that I wouldn’t stick it out long enough to see the entire telecast. I either didn’t recognize the performers or wasn’t familiar enough with their latest recordings to invest much in the categories and competition. I switched over to BET at 7 for Black Girls Rock and found, near the center of the program, a two-minute rendition of the gospel standard, “Mary Don’t You Weep” from R&B artist Fantasia that moved me more than an hour of the Stellars had.

I tweeted: “Fantasia could single-handedly revive my interest in gospel as a genre.” I wasn’t alone. Twitter user @ShareefJackson admitted, “I’ve never really liked Fantasia’s R&B, but gospel is her joint.” Dozens of tweets called for a Fantasia gospel album. Other tweets simply expressed how moving or chilling or, to borrow from Christian vernacular, anointed the performance was.

It would seem that the mission of “taking the Cross over” isn’t exclusive to gospel artists. Fantasia, an oft-professed Christian, is also quite capable of shouldering the task. The idea that gospel musicians are instructive in ways that R&B or pop artists are not has become passe, and it’s past time for gospel artists to recalibrate their interests accordingly.

Sunday night, while the Stellars and Black Girls Rock were airing, Kirk Franklin tweeted his concern over the future of the gospel industry: “Man, I need people to support these new gospel artist….we need them to keep this genre alive.”

As out of step as I now find myself with today’s gospel landscape, it was still disconcerting to see the musician who reached stratospheric heights while I was still fully invested in the genre lament its possible end.

Franklin has focused his recent attention on finding and producing new talent, both as an executive producer of BET’s gospel music talent competition series, “Sunday Best,” and through his RCA-based music label, Fo Yo Soul. But without significant marketing pushes and amid waning public interest, it’s difficult to imagine a large-scale gospel music renaissance like the one he jump-started with “Stomp” in 1997.

Today, urban contemporary acts such as Mary Mary and Deitrick Haddon are turning to reality shows that chronicle their struggles to maintain popularity and bolster sales, while navigating personal drama. And young artists such as Kierra Sheard, herself a reality show alum and the daughter of gospel legend Karen Clark Sheard of the Clark Sisters, are singing their hearts out as movingly as Fantasia did, but too few people are buying their albums.

What will it take to get people to further invest in the next generation of gospel artists? Perhaps the industry should look to gospel rapper Lecrae, whose 2014 album, “Anomaly,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and whom mainstream rap sensation Kendrick Lamar counts among his own influences.

Lecrae is noted for his position that there should be no division between the sacred and secular. In a 2013 speech at Liberty University’s Convocation, Lecrae argued that “It’s not the music that’s the problem; it’s the heart of the person that’s creating the music, so let’s not demonize the music in and of itself.”

Though he agrees with older generations that gospel musicians should share a Christian message in secular spaces, they shouldn’t do so with an intention to divide. It’s an inclusive, equalizing message, rather than an exclusive one. The best forecast for gospel music’s future will be measured by how well its younger musicians can adapt to a constantly changing musical landscape, while engaging mainstream artists in musical relationships that are less reliant on a teacher-student or savior-sinner model.